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Award-winning Odyssey Project development director shares ‘love of humanity’ despite harrowing family history

Group of Odyssey staff with Jenn

Above photo: UW Odyssey Project students, staff and supporters celebrate Jenny Pressman’s (center, with flowers) successful fundraising, including for Odyssey’s million-dollar match.

When Jenny Pressman went up to receive her Outstanding Fundraising Professional award on National Philanthropy Day in November, she opened her heart to those in attendance:

“I shouldn’t be up here,” she said. “I’m not trying to be humble when I say that. I think I’m actually pretty good at what I do. What I mean is, my receiving this award … my being alive at all, is something I don’t take for granted.”

Then, with the silent crowd, she shared the story of how her parents survived the Holocaust. Her mother saw her own father beaten to death by Nazi soldiers and her own mother forced into a cattle car before being sent to be gassed in the Treblinka concentration camp. Pressman’s father saw similar atrocities and weighed less than 60 pounds when he was liberated.

“So when I say I shouldn’t be up here, what I really mean is, I’m very aware of how precious life is — and how heartbreaking this world can be,” she added. “And yet, every day I get to see the good in people, how our community comes together to effect real change.”

Pressman herself makes a difference in the community through the UW Odyssey Project, which is why she received the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ award. 

The award-winning Odyssey Project, part of UW–Madison Continuing Studies, takes a whole family approach to breaking the cycle of generational poverty through access to education, giving adult and youth learners a voice, and increasing confidence through reading, writing and speaking.

As director of development and community partnerships with Odyssey, Pressman secures financial and programmatic support to improve educational access for low-income adults. In December 2023, she helped Odyssey meet a $1 million gift match, propelling the organization to empower even more people through education.

Philanthropy

Pressman shared that philanthropy is the “love of humanity,” which seems to be her life’s work.

Before becoming an accomplished fundraiser, Pressman – who calls herself a “proud Jewish lesbian mother” – was and continues to be a lifelong community activist. She’s fought for gender justice, racial equity, peace, freedom, and workers’ and immigrant rights for more than five decades.

headshot of jenny Pressman
Jenny Pressman

Born in New York City to courageous refugee parents, she was raised to speak out against injustice, which crystallized her activism at an early age. After high school, she interned for anthropologist Margaret Mead, studied labor history at Cornell University and women’s and gender history at UW–Madison, and received her law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School.

She practiced law for several years in the Baltimore/Washington area then moved back to Madison to direct a private charitable foundation. Pressman served as the development director of the Goodman Community Center during a capital campaign before landing her current role at Odyssey.

In her five-year tenure with Odyssey, Pressman has helped the program triple its budget and staffing. She said, “That growth is exciting; I’m now focusing on how we sustain the growth. To me, it’s about partnerships. The work that I love best is when I get to talk to donors, foundations and businesses – the connection and building community.”

Pressman said it’s about connecting people with opportunities to make an impact, and not being afraid to talk about money: “Being a New Yorker, I have no fear of that. The worst thing people can say is no, and I don’t take that personally.”

Pressman and Odyssey Director Emily Auerbach were critical in getting a large donation during the height of the pandemic. Thanks to a $500,000 gift from the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation and 15 other major pledges over a five-year period, Odyssey raised $1.5 million, matched by John and Tashia Morgridge, for a $3 million endowed distinguished chair.

“What I’ve done is help find where people want to make an impact and how that overlaps with what Odyssey is doing, which is fighting poverty and creating access to education through a multigenerational approach,” she said. “That’s the part where I’ve been able to make a difference.”

At the end of 2023, Pressman shepherded another Pleasant Rowland gift: a $1 million challenge that was enhanced by a $500,000 match by Diane Ballweg. Every dollar given between May 1 and December 31, 2023, was matched 2:1 and the campaign raised more than $2 million for the Odyssey Project.

“I feel Odyssey is truly making a difference in people’s lives,” Pressman added.

Humanity

Ultimately, that’s why she’s in the fundraising business – to improve lives.

Pressman has seen lives change first-hand through Odyssey students taking courses, then going on to get bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Some students have gone from homelessness to entrepreneurship. Entire families benefit from the Odyssey Project. Young children can participate through Odyssey Junior, veterans can take classes through Odyssey Beyond Wars, people who are incarcerated can be involved in Odyssey Beyond Bars and participants aged 60+ can learn and share stories through Odyssey Senior.

Pressman has made it her mission to provide people with the resources they need to excel. She can’t help but draw on the incredible story of her parents’ survival and the subsequent success they found in the U.S.  

Pressman’s parents courted and married while living under Nazi occupation in the Warsaw Ghetto. They participated in the uprising and were separated while escaping certain death. Most of their family members died in the concentration camps. After the war, her parents reunited by chance in Vienna, narrowly escaping imprisonment by Russians as they fled across the Alps into Italy, were given access to education and eventually settled in New York.

Pressman shares their heart-wrenching story partly to remind people of the power of inclusion and access.

“I really do try to move through the world with an ethos of love,” she said. “A lot of that comes from my mom. She was so warm and loving and free in her expression. It was amazing to me that she could be that way considering all she’d gone through in her life. 

“When I look at my own life, I know that some of us are born lucky because of circumstances, and that gives us responsibility to look around and see who doesn’t have the same opportunities and access. That’s how this ties into Odyssey, which is all about access to education and opportunity.”

Community

Pressman’s commitment to philanthropy and humanity extend beyond Odyssey to her broader community. 

She’s dedicated herself to building intersectional, multigenerational efforts by serving on numerous nonprofit boards, from the Dane County Rape Crisis Center in the early 1980s to the Arts + Literature Laboratory today. She’s hosted dozens of nonprofit and political fundraisers and volunteered with grassroots organizations such as Voces de la Frontera and GSAFE.

In the spring of 2023, Pressman received the first Tammy Baldwin Trailblazer Award for her work with GSAFE, an organization that works to create safe, inclusive spaces for LGBTQIA+ youth.

“Community is another favorite word of mine,” she said. “To do things collaboratively and with partners, that’s how we make a real impact in this world.”

Pressman speaks of Odyssey partnerships that have given students of all ages the opportunity to see plays, concerts and other arts events, adding that she sees arts organizations in the Madison area making an effort to include more people and more works that represent wider audiences.

Community gives her hope.

Pressman added that her parents’ story also makes her hopeful: “Their legacy matters to me. When my parents crossed over the Alps into Italy, the Italian government provided them with free education. They found an organization to sponsor them so they could stay with other Jewish refugees. They wouldn’t have had an opportunity if others hadn’t stepped up to provide access.”

Pressman’s father became an engineer and her mother, a doctor.

“My mother was so optimistic, and I seem to have that gene. It is an absolute belief in the good in people and in beauty and joy,” she added. “I am horrified daily about what is happening to Palestinians in Gaza, for example, but I still push forward to find the joy of looking at the lake, going to an art event, being with friends and feeling a real sense of gratitude. Just the fact that I am alive and that I get to do what I do with people who I truly love is a gift I don’t take for granted.”

For more information or to donate to the Odyssey Project, visit odyssey.wisc.edu or email odysseyproject@dcs.wisc.edu